The Anti-rightist Campaign as Media Event: Censorship, Political Dissent, and Media in 1950s China

Oct 20, 2016 | 12:00 PM - 1:30 PM

Chin Sei Jeong (Associate Professor, Division of International Studies, Ewha Womans University; HYI Visiting Scholar 2016-17)
Chair/discussant: Arunabh Ghosh (Assistant Professor of History, Harvard University)

Co-sponsored with the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies

Zhang Naiqi, the Minister of Food and democratic party leader, was denounced as one of the three leading “rightists” during the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957-58) in China. Accusations against Zhang by other intellectuals were actively publicized through the news media. Intriguingly, rather than simply censoring “rightist voices,” the CCP allowed the news media to publicize Zhang’s contestation against the accusation, even when the CCP had the capacity to completely censor Zhang’s rebuttal. The CCP by the early 1950s monopolized the ability to construct publicity and public opinion on party policies and political affairs by gaining tight media control through nationalizing the media and establishing a relatively effective censorship system. Thus, the CCP’s effective media control itself does not fully explain Zhang’s vulnerability to the accusation. Ultimately, Zhang was unsuccessful in contesting the public accusation, and was ultimately purged from most of his public positions.

This talk explores the role of the media in a high-profile political campaign in the early PRC, such as the Anti-Rightist Campaign, by emphasizing the theatrical and performative nature of the campaign. Earlier studies on political campaigns in the PRC often neglected the role of the media, due to the assumption that the media functioned merely as a party mouthpiece. However, major newspapers such as the People’s Daily played an important role as a public tribunal in which a particular political discourse was delegitimized and defined as “dissent.” Even when branded as “rightist,” “anti-socialist,” “anti-party,” and even “counterrevolutionary,” Zhang was allowed to publicize his own rebuttal against the accusation. Thus, Zhang Naiqi became vulnerable to public accusation not because he was unable to publicize his own voice, but because he was unable to negotiate with the party and the news media in constructing publicity for the case and creating his own subjectivity in public in a way that would allow him not to lose his political legitimacy. Ultimately, this talk aims at shedding new light on the role of media in politics, media censorship, and political dissent in 1950s China.